When I called Owen Thomas to talk about the productivity-boosting properties of a treadmill desk, he was, not surprisingly, walking the walk as he talked the talk. He was on his treadmill.
That’s because Thomas, editor-in-chief of tech news site ReadWrite, is several months into his practice of walking while working—usually about 10 miles a day when he’s not traveling. That’s not to say he’s treading the rubber belt for eight hours continuously. Thomas reports that his longest stretch of walking was three hours.
The results so far: "I dropped 13 pounds," he says with a broad grin. And thanks to Runkeeper, Thomas also tracks his heart rate (which is about 87 bpm while he's walking). But has the treadmill desk made him more productive? "Measuring overall work output is tough because I hop on and off a lot," he says.
Some innovative thinkers like Nilofer Merchant forgo the office altogether in favor of walk-'n'-talks to keep ideas flowing. But many of us remain glued to our seats for hours at a time, despite 10 years worth of scientific studies that prove sitting is terrible for us. So bad, that in addition to back problems, obesity, and diabetes, sedentary death syndrome has become a real consequence for desk jockeys and couch potatoes.
The benefits of treadmill desks—be they health or productivity related—are still anecdotal. One study of 36 sedentary staffers at a financial services company found that after a year, while there was a performance loss in the first three to five months, they had "exceeded baseline goals" by the end of the experience. Other researchers found that typing speed and accuracy declined while walking and that treadmill use affected the fine motor skills needed to click a mouse or drag and drop text.
Since we can’t conduct our own scientific study on the performance-boosting power of treadmill desks, we spoke to people like Thomas, whose jobs demand extended periods of concentration usually spent sitting in front of a computer. Here’s what they’ve observed about the productivity of perambulation.
When I reached her at 8 a.m. on a recent morning, Susan Orlean confessed she was still in her pajamas and therefore, not walking at the treadmill desk yet. Orlean is devoted to her daily work constitutionals. A writer for the New Yorker and author of several books, Orlean once wrote a thorough report about treadmill desks—all while she was walking. "The first two things I wrote came remarkably easily," she recalls, "I thought, oh my god, this is magic!"
That was over six months ago. "I’m not sitting down at all anymore to write," says Orlean, "Once every 45 minutes, I may pause and work standing, but without the treadmill moving." That’s when she's writing longhand, a trick we’ve learned can help us open creative pathways. Through trial and error, Orlean’s settled on a speed of about 2.1 mph, which she says, "Feels like a steady, purposeful walk and doesn't jiggle me too much."
Now working on a new book, Orlean admits, "Writing is still a chore. I won’t pretend I’ll never get stuck on a piece." But the nervous energy that can get a body in trouble when they’re faced with a particularly pesky project can be absorbed by walking, she says, and it helps concentration. "I get very tense from sitting there," Orlean explains, "That is the surprise [on the treadmill desk]. You just feel more relaxed. Your body is busy walking and your brain can be busy being a brain." If she’s still stuck after a session of pacing, "At least I’m getting exercise."
Which is exactly the point for Joanna Coles. The editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan sets her pace at a brisk 3.5 mph, an appropriate speed for her to make a dent in a stack of "old media," including the latest trade magazines, the New York Times and the Washington Post, but not so fast that she gets "all red faced."
She also walks her way [shod in a pair of Céline python-skin sneakers] through meetings. "Everyone else has to sit," Coles asserts. What you won’t find during meetings or while reading, are any electronic devices. Instead she’s adorned the remaining surface of the desk with a large orchid (holla, Orlean!) and a smaller potted plant.
In this way, Coles says she is mitigating the exercise panic that tends to set in around 4:30 p.m. "Especially if you are going out to drinks, or a party, or some other wildly calorific evening." The meditative quality of walking also helps her resist the urge to grab that bar of dark chocolate to stave off the mid-afternoon slump. "I’m aware its all sort of preposterous, but it works."
Owen Thomas, meanwhile, doesn’t hold quite the same view. Although he is conducting the experiment with the treadmill desk partly as a way to get in shape, he says, "Don't think of this as a piece of gym equipment in the office. Think of it as a way to turn desk time into walking time—a walking meeting with yourself." That said, he admits he’s had to change his shirt after walking for a while and now keeps a fan aimed at the desk while he’s walking.
Thomas says at least two of his colleagues have signed up to use the desk, thinking they would get in a midday run. "It’s a common mistake," he says. Unlike those at the gym, top speed at most treadmill desks is about 4 miles an hour.
Thomas finds he can’t type and walk at much faster than 3 mph, but he believes he can write better than he can when he sits. "I am able to focus because you tend to single task when you are walking," he explains. Editing is one of those tasks that remains challenging. "Dragging and selecting is harder," he notes, and keyboard shortcuts have, by necessity, replaced mouse clicks.
At SilverTech, about half of the 40-person staff use a communal treadmill desk. Some are up walking daily, while others use it only occasionally, according to Jennifer Nickulas, a marketing specialist at the creative agency. "While one of our team members, Jeff McPherson, was training for the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, he worked from the treadmill desk almost exclusively for a couple weeks," says Nickulas.
Thanks to its location in an open area in our agency’s marketing and business development area, it’s not unusual for someone to jump on for a 15-minute conversation, or for a few hours while working on a proposal. Digital marketing strategist Chad Campbell has even walked the belt in flip flops, albeit at a slower speed.
Nickulas says there are no rules about what employees may or may not leave behind on the desk surface, but points out that a large amount of the strategy work the agency is doing for the outdoor apparel company Polartec was created while on the treadmill desk. SilverTech’s chief software architect prefers to write blog posts while walking. Says Nickulas, "I don’t see too many designers or developers using it, and it does have a little background noise, so conducting phone calls from it can be tricky."